Parallelism in Les Misérables

These are some preliminary thoughts about parallelism within Les Misérables. Having read and studied the brick too many times, I went to see the musical again yesterday and came out with some significant thoughts on parallels and how the musical may have got its priorities wrong.

The only real problem with the musical is its length, coupled probably with theatrical logistics, which means that as it only clocks in at about 3 hours most of the intricacies of the brick get lost. However, something that I noticed in the choreography and the brilliance of Hugo Chiarella (R) was that there is a significant amount of mirroring between the triangle of Marius, Cosette and Eponine versus Enjolras, R and Enjolras’s mistress, Patria.

In narrative terms, the similarities between Ponine and R signify this mirror in that they are both probably the most obvious representatives of ‘The Wretches’ in the book once we reach Paris. They are certainly not in the worst situations, but they seem to be the ones with the least hope and most desperate. Eponine is set apart from Azelma, Gavroche and the rest by being actively aware of how awful her criminality is and loathing it and yet having to take part in order to survive, living an existence that she hates. By contrast, her brothers are happy-go-lucky and the rest of the Thénardiers revel somewhat sadistically in their misdeeds, even Madame T despite her early death. R is similarly hopeless – all of the students are driven by hope where R is driven by cynicism – it is literally his nihilism which ties him to Enjolras and thus the revolution.  The other way in which they are easily the most obvious wretches in the Paris section of the text is that they are both dependent on vices – alcoholism in R’s case, seen as even more of a vice, arguably, by the highly religious Hugo, although I don’t actually know about this, and Ponine dependent on deceit, deception, theft and prostitution.

The final part of the mirror is that both are utterly dependent on one individual – Eponine has Marius and Grantaire has Enjolras. In both cases this is someone drawn to the utter opposite of them (the toad has his eyes upturned to heaven, and for what? to watch the eagle soar) and this signifies, to me, the beginnings of a mirror. The triangles develop further – Marius’s oblivion and devotion to Cosette can be paralleled with Enjolras’s devotion to France. The parallelism between patriotism and romantic devotion are actively compared by Hugo when Enjolras, ever intense, states that his mistress is Patria. I can’t speak definitively about the norms of contemporary French literature but I know that the phrasing of this is interesting and stands out in English translations. I also think that Hugo’s continued characterisation of France as a woman is romantic and typical of his concept of nationhood, but worth focusing on as a reason for his portrayal of Cosette.

The musical got this far last night and drew some really beautiful moments out of this mirror: R being the first barricade boy to notice A Little Fall of Rain and watching it with a real sense of tragedy, being aware of the foreshadowing; R helping Ponine find Marius in the segue from Do You Hear the People Sing? to In My Life. However, past this, the metaphor became a little muddled – once Ponine died, R seemed drawn to Marius the way he had been drawn to Ponine, seeming to empathise over the similarities between their relationships with Cosette and Enjolras. This doesn’t in fact work given how different they are, particularly given that R is conscious of everything that has happened with Ponine. However, it did provide the foreshadowing for the final battle, as mentioned above, which was incredibly bittersweet and worth it. It made up for the absence of Drink With Me (reprise) – almost.

Not having reread much of the brick since last night apart from key passages and having neither my favourite translation nor the French on me I can’t swear to what I’m about to write, but the next bit is conjecture based on the parallelisms already identified. This is pretty much all from the brick.

The story of Cosette can be seen as an allegory for nationhood, particularly of that of France. I would love someone to help with the etymology of Euphrasie (I can’t find anything after a quick search) but Cosette is obviously short for Chosette, or little thing, and it is true that Cosette’s youth is continually highlighted throughout the text, as is that of France. It is also true that Cosette is continually reinvented, but normally by other people – most obviously with Marius and Ursula, but also in the convent, with the Thenardiers etc. The episode in the convent should show us that she has her own mind and can direct her own future – the autonomy of a spiritual national entity seems very Hugo-esque to me – but then her behaviour regarding the robin also shows great innocence and youth, and she is easily directed by Marius at the end of the novel. Thus there is a real dichotomy present within Cosette.

If you wanted to really apply the reinventions of Cosette to France, you could reference the idea of Ursule as being connected to the appointment of Louis-Philippe in 1830 after the July Revolution, the idea of a bourgeois revolution to suit what individuals wanted rather than the truth that the people needed. This is tenuous, admittedly.

It is also undoubted in my mind that the real hero of Les Misérables is France. On that basis, rather than Marius/Cosette/Eponine forming the main Parisian plot and being mirrored by the barricade boys, should it in fact be the other way around? Hugo’s politics coupled with my reading of the brick make me think that this is not only an ode to society but also a profound work of social and political history within France, suggesting to me that she is meant to take centre stage, particularly given that Hugo personifies her. If she is further personified in Cosette as a mirror, it stands to reason that we may do better to focus on E/R/Patria.

Another symbolic reason to focus on E/R/Patria is the symbolism inherent to the character of Enjolras which suggests his centrality. Christian symbolism is strong is Les Misérables and there is certainly the idea of a Christ-like figure in Jean Valjean in his self sacrifice for Cosette prompted by the ruthlessness of Marius, arguably representing the duality of humanity. However, I would argue that the more potent Christ image within the play is Enjolras sacrificing himself for France at the barricades. This is for a number of reasons. First of all, I think it is notable that Enjolras is not merely shot on the barricades, caught in crossfire, killed as a prisoner (sorry Jehan) or any of the other ways rebels die in the brick. Rather, Enjolras is executed, not in the manner of Jehan as a prisoner but as a criminal (it really was you who killed the artillery sergeant? – he is answering to a crime). He is a violent rebel who loathes violence, which can (tenuously perhaps) be paralleled to Christ’s role in what could have become a Judean violent rebellion. His death as a parallel to Christ’s is cemented when he says  I will die with thee and thou shalt be born again with me. As well as this, he is paralleled to Apollo throughout but particularly upon execution – most of the classical imagery in the text is paired queer coding but Apollo is always solo, being the equivalent to Jesus when converting from classical religions to Christianity (e.g. Christmas is on December 25th because that was Apollo’s birthday). In a novel, therefore, which is about Christian redemption of humankind, Enjolras seems central.

So why is Marius/Cosette/Ponine a mirror for E/R/Patria rather than the other way around? Largely because of the centrality of Christianity and France to the brick. Enjolras and Patria provide more direct links to these themes, with R and Ponine as signifiers for the parallelism. However, this begs the question of why the parallelism at all? Bar possibly the usefulness of Cosette as a symbol for France, there seems little reason for this within the text at first reading. However, within this parallelism, as the characters are paired up, it becomes apparent that this mirror is significant in showing the difference between Marius and Enjolras. Eponine and R live out nearly identical lives of maniacal devotion and Ponine’s self-sacrifice for Marius foreshadows R’s for Enjolras, in the brick an active decision in both cases rather than the crossfire of the former in the musical. The parallels between Cosette and France have already been shown. Yet Marius and Enjolras, in similar situations, are very different.

Enjolras is committed to dying for Patria on the barricade. When Marius learns that happiness with Cosette is impossible due to Gillenormand and Valjean he swears to Cosette that he will die for her on the barricade. Enjolras dies; Marius does not. This is where the mirror starts to differ, and this is where Hugo’s view on humanity begins to take shape.

It is undeniable that Enjolras is idolised by the text in a way that Marius isn’t; the constant Apollo allusions tie in with the contemporary cult of neo-Classicism whilst his actions on the barricades are known to have been supported by Hugo given that Hugo himself was a rebel. Marius, on the other hand, is condemned by the narrative towards the end of the text; his treatment of Valjean is terrible. Although it is true that he believes Valjean to be guilty of murder at this point, it is also true that this is a novel which espouses forgiveness and second chances (see Valjean) and despite this being the conclusion of the book Marius has not developed in this way. As well as this, he takes up his baronetcy with only a word about the death of Courfeyrac, let alone the others, despite the huge sacrifice that they made – there is no great Empty Chairs at Empty Tables moment or any allusion made to revolutionary values. Revolution no longer suits Marius’s being and so he has abandoned it, which goes against every political value of Victor Hugo. Yet Marius is not a bad character – up until this point he has fit the stereotype of the young lover and has thus been eminently likeable. He is often seen as the audience-identification character in Les Misérables because of this, especially because he is generally said to have been modelled on a young Victor Hugo.

Thus, when the book ends with Marius and Cosette alive, it is not that there are no wretches because of change but because they have all died. There is none of the comedy of the Thénardiers as in the musical – Thénardier and Azelma go to America to become slave-traders, showing the fact that the misery depicted in this social history is continuing. Thus this ending is bleaker and still calls to mind the dismal situation of France, echoed perhaps in the state of Cosette – ostensibly happy and fulfilled, but with the underlying tragedy of Valjean’s absence souring her life (which of course culminates in his death).

Yet the behaviour of Marius is not despicable in that it is completely human, whereas Enjolras’s manic devotion and Christlike status is not. This is where Hugo uses the parallel to distinguish between the godly and the human and to show how humanity may self-perpetuate its own misery by looking out for itself. Marius is representative of the simple human instinct to look after his own interests, and the beauty of Hugo’s text is that the reader does not begrudge him that. We see what he has been through and we understand his actions. Hugo, however, points to these differences and points to all of the people who did not follow Enjolras, or Christ, and rise up as he did, drawing the parallel of Christ’s death so that sins may be forgiven. This self-interest is the real tragedy of Les Misérables, the quasi-hamartia that is holding everyone back. Parallels may again be drawn with the accession of Orléans after the July Revolution as mentioned earlier; from a Marxist perspective Marius is representative of the bourgeois revolution. In this sense, Hugo can be seen to criticise himself in two distinct ways: the Marxist specifics of his support of Orléans, personified in the self-interest of Marius as Hugo’s representative in the text; and simply his role as a human in perpetuating man’s suffering, particularly as a political figure. Marius’s Napoleonic tendencies, to further France at the expense of the world, compound the idea of the selfishness of Marius, but that he is selfish and relatable at once proves his humanity. Thus arguably the political message of the character of Marius can only be understood through E/R/Patria and to understand the wishes of Hugo for society E/R/Patria must be focused on, whereas to understand Hugo’s cynicism about the self-perpetuating wretchedness of humanity one must look to Marius/Cosette/Ponine. However, it is most clear that these parallels in adaptations and criticism need to be weighed more obviously beside one another as they are not separate parts of the text but designed to illuminate one another.

These are only some preliminary musings but I hope that this has shed some light on parallelism and mirrors within Les Mis – leave thoughts below if you want to do so.

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2 thoughts on “Parallelism in Les Misérables

  1. ailsa read says:

    Well thought out —-I will have to see it again now

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